A COVID summer: cooking up change
by Katie Hooge
Normally, summer brings about the much anticipated “patio-season” for Edmonton’s vibrant downtown. The area features an array of restaurants and bars that are usually bustling with people on warm summer days. Whether it is a delicious meal, an ice-cold drink, or a tasty treat — there’s something to satisfy every craving. However, this year’s summer season was far from normal. With the global pandemic shaking up a change in the restaurant industry, it was takeout that took home the win for many restaurants.
In March, the heavy hit of COVID-19 closed down several sectors of the economy — including restaurants and bars. Local restaurants closed their doors to the public and transitioned into a takeout-only business. Without foot traffic coming in, it was the only way for restaurants to stay afloat. Many introduced new options tailored to self-isolation, such as meal kits, heat-and-eat dishes, and cocktail kits that could be made at home. Numerous restaurants also promoted business by offering free delivery or discounts on takeout orders.
The rise of takeout
Edmonton’s Fox Burger is just one restaurant that had to quickly adjust its business plan to takeout when quarantine began. One of the owners, Michael Forgie, says that prior to COVID-19 they were primarily dine-in based. “When that came to a screeching halt, we decided to — well we needed to — do everything on takeout,” he says.
Originally, the popular spot had customers order through direct messaging on Instagram or by calling in. Eventually, however, they created an online ordering system — something they didn’t have before.
While many restaurants saw a slow-down during quarantine, Fox Burger was very busy. They once posted on Instagram to tell followers they were not able to get to all the orders from the previous day.
“Obviously people did — as soon as COVID hit — really jump on the support local side of things,” says Forgie.
While doing takeout only, Forgie says they didn’t have to adjust the menu much at all. Luckily, their burgers and fries travel well for delivery. Forgie adds that new alcohol regulations, allowing restaurants to sell booze to go, was another big help that allowed them to increase revenue.
Despite restaurants like Fox Burger reopening mid-May with safety procedures and limited capacity seating, some Edmontonians have still chosen to skip the crowds.
Jonelle Rosery, a nurse at the Mazankowski Heart Institute, has tried to avoid dining in at restaurants since they reopened. She says she tried going once but felt on-edge the whole time. Her fear is that her server or someone previously in the restaurant could have had the virus. “I don’t want to get my family sick or my unit; if I give it to my unit, we have an entire ICU down in Alberta,” she says. Because of her job and family, Rosery sees the need to remain very cautious.
After being laid off her serving job at Rocky Mountain Icehouse, Rusti Biebert was hired at Spotlight Cabaret — a hot spot just off Whyte Avenue known for their rooftop patio and entertainment.
“We opened day one of phase one and it was bumping,” says the server of 17 years. “It was obvious that after three months of being on lockdown, people just wanted a change of scenery and to just be outside again.”
Neither Rocky Mountain Icehouse nor Spotlight Cabaret are known for takeout. Rocky Mountain Icehouse tried to increase their takeout business but wasn’t very successful, and Spotlight Cabaret does very little. “People come for the atmosphere,” says Biebert.
Luckily for Spotlight Cabaret, Biebert says they are still able to provide entertainment; they are hosting shows Wednesday to Saturday. As they continue to adjust where necessary, she has high hopes for the success of their entertainment line-up this winter. “I just hope people will still be able to afford to come out once CERB ends for a lot of people.”
Biebert says coming back to work presented several obstacles. The restaurant has implemented the necessary safety procedures and protocols, but she says the mandatory mask rule has been the biggest challenge — not for herself but for customers. Prior to the rule taking effect, she had a few tables try to remove the mask from her face because they were upset she was wearing one.
“It’s bad enough that I had to babysit drunks before COVID,” she says. “How many times can you say ‘put your mask back on’ before you sound like a broken record and obviously people stop listening or caring.”
There is no doubt COVID-19 has shaken up the restaurant industry, but local restaurants are taking things with a grain of salt as they adapt in order to keep safely serving up Edmontonians. “It was quick, it was uncomfortable, but it was necessary,” says Forgie.